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Re-reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death”

Recently I started re-reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death.” (In German: “Wir amüsieren uns zu Tode.”) This is a book that deeply influenced me as a teen. In young adulthood I lived without TV out of principle, mostly because of this book. (I do remember looking longingly at the small portable TVs while shopping at an electronics store, though.)

Re-reading parts of it now makes me feel it did not hold up well, though a lot of the message is still true in essence. I do think the constant distractions are harmful. It’s almost quaint now, how Neil Postman was so worried back then, during rather innocent times with just a handful TV channels and no internet. Now, in 2016, almost everyone now carries a TV, a gaming machine, and a bookshelf in their pocket at all times. Most teenagers today don’t even know the boredom of e.g. waiting for the bus with nothing to do.

But overall the book came across as extremely dogmatic. Science is not supposed to be fun! Reading beats watching! World news is just served up as entertainment! Sesame Street is harmful! Etc. etc. (I’m exaggerating a bit, but Postman comes across as more polemic than nuanced.)

The introductory chapter is still pretty genius though - comparing Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s vision.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. […] In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

It’s hard to argue with that. We are half-way there. Maybe most of the way.

Maybe, like everyone, I love watching YouTube and Netflix too much to fully realize the impact that this might have on me as a person, and so I find myself disagreeing a lot with the rest of the book?

Was I too jaded back then (completely buying into Postman’s argument), or am I too jaded now?

Interesting stuff to think about. I love when I re-read books after a decade (or two, or three) and discover them in a whole new context - noticing how much I (and the world around me) have changed always adds more layers of meaning.


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